Thursday, 12 June 2014

A Short Blog About Haggis

A short blog about Haggis.

I was nine years old when I arrived home from school one day soaked by my mile-long walk in an absolute deluge. In the sitting room, I found two young men smoking cigarettes and sipping cups of tea. They had been cleaning windows in the street when the heavens opened, which explained the long ladders I had just walked past in the front garden. My mother had taken pity on them, inviting them in to sit out the storm. They were called Jimmy and Haggis. As they were on friendly terms with my brother Mikey, I had seen them briefly before, talking and laughing with him on the main street.

They were both chatty, friendly, both speaking to me as I entered the room. To my mother and older sister, they were talking about the recent gigs they’d done in the town. It turned out they were members of the best known of the local bands. Even I had heard of them. The one called Haggis drew my attention most. He was good-looking, with an open face and big warm smile. He wore a brown suede jacket that I thought was the coolest item of clothing I’d ever seen a man wear. Long suede fringes hung from the front and back, and from all the way down the underside of the sleeves. It looked to me, like something an American Indian would wear. I wished I could have one just like it.

Haggis patted the seat next to him on the big old art-deco sofa. “Take a seat.” he said, as if it was his house. I liked him straight away, so did as he suggested instead of drifting off upstairs as I usually would have done. I was nine, but still so small, so shy, he guessed my age to be six. He’d thought that me and my younger sister were twins.

It was clear that he liked my older sister, so I suspect that she had more to do with him starting to visit us in the evenings, than his friendship with Mikey did. My parents liked him, but my sister was too wrapped up in liking another man to accept Haggis when he asked her out on a date. The man she liked was a bad lot, violent and dishonest, and would cause huge rifts within the family, so perhaps that’s partly why my parents encouraged Haggis to visit as often as he did. To me, he had such a kindly face, and one so very much of the time, I felt a little star struck whenever I saw him.

One evening he brought round a tape recorder, something I’d never seen before. Huge reels slowly turned as he played some of his songs to us. He said he could record too so my mother recited a poem into it that she’d remembered from school. She seemed so animated, putting real feeling and expression into the lines. Haggis was obviously impressed, which pleased her. She was a woman with lots of talents that had always been held back by circumstance. She had never been allowed to shine, as she might have.

He played it back and she sounded so much more Geordie on there than we all felt she did in life. She was shocked, but was loving the experience.

Haggis turned to me. Would I like to have a go? I shrunk back in my seat, shaking my head. My mother was all for it. “Oh, he knows all sorts of poems and songs.” she said, dropping me in it. “Why not sing Nellie the Elephant. You like that.” Haggis held the microphone to my face and turned the recorder on. Nothing happened. Nothing came out. My face turned red and all I could do was look at the floor. “Well, just try saying Testing, testing, one two three.” He suggested. He put his arm round my shoulder, smiled and nodded to me to begin. And I did begin, oh so quietly, but I did begin. I said the dreaded Testing, testing, one two three. That pleased him, but hearing it back was too much for me. I didn’t want that. I left the room and went up to bed.

Some time later, as my older sister and I were walking past the small cafe in the centre of town, there was a tap on the window. Haggis was there, beckoning us in. He sat us down at his table, and asked what we’d like. I didn’t know what you could have. I’d rarely been in a cafe. My sister asked for a cup of tea, but I didn’t like tea very much. He said he’d get me something, and came back to the table with a strangely shaped bottle of a dark drink. He handed me a straw to drink it with. The first time I’d ever tasted Coca-Cola. It seemed so exotic and I liked it.

I liked Haggis, so I clearly remember the last time I saw him. I’d heard a knock at our door late one afternoon. I was upstairs doing some drawing so thought little of it. It was some time before I went downstairs, an hour or more,  to find my sister at the door, talking quietly to Haggis, who stood dejectedly outside on the step. I said hello and he weakly smiled, but my sister’s expression told me not to hang around. In the living room I asked Mum why Haggis hadn’t come in. She looked disappointed herself. She said she thought Haggis was here to try one last attempt at asking sis out, but that she was having none of it. What Mum didn’t know at that point, was that my sister was already much more deeply involved with the other man than she was admitting. It didn’t show yet, but a baby was heading in our direction.

Haggis went away at last, and though Mikey saw him sometimes, I never did again. So it was both lovely and sad to see his face again last week, in an old photograph taken around the time I knew him. Lovely that his face and especially his smile were just as I remembered. Sad, because it came with the news that he had just died of cancer.


Haggis (centre), Jimmy (left)

Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas 1970

Jim. A lasting friendship.

Once a week or so, I babysat for a young couple. I was only 14, but I was from a close-knit family and already used to looking after young kids. I could change a nappy quickly and without fuss if necessary, and was generally considered responsible enough (in this area at least), to take good care of them. Actually, I was even the favourite and most requested babysitter with the kids too. Those that were old enough always begged their parents to get me in. My strategy was to tire them out with whatever games they wanted so that by the time I said they had to go to bed I never had too much dissention.

This couple had a little boy called Leon. He was somewhere about three years old and still in nappies at night time. The only time he woke up again, on most occasions, was when his nappy was drenched.

His parents were Michelle and Matt. Michelle had been the best friend of my older sister Janey since they were very young themselves. They had even become mothers at about the same time, and while Michelle went on to marry the father of her child, my sister did not. Contrary to all conventions of the time, my parents stood firm against it happening because the man involved had a history of violence and they felt an unhappy future awaited her and her child. This attitude caused great storms in our house, the like of which I’d never known before. Janey shouted and screamed, and generally had fits of fury at being thwarted in this way. Instead of organising a wedding as quickly as possible, which was the usual scenario, they bit the bullet to put on a great show of welcoming my baby nephew into our home instead, when really I knew they had been heartbroken by the news of the expectancy when they heard it, and the aftermath –the rows with Janey and even physical threats to my dad from the man involved.

At the time, I didn’t fully understand what a radical stand they had taken for the time and place, or how scandalised the neighbours were, talking in huddles behind my parent’s backs. On the day my nephew Kris arrived in our home, Mum quickly put him in the new pram she’d just bought ‘on tick’ and took him out on a long slow trip around the local streets.

She wanted him to be baptised, like the rest of us, and went to see the priests. The old one refused, but the other, a more kindly and large round figure in black said he would do it, but it could not be after the church service on Sunday, which was the usual time. We would have to go to the church on the Saturday evening at 8pm, just as it was getting dark. I was appalled. This tiny being had done nothing wrong but the church saw him as something to be kept hidden. Allowed to join, but not welcomed.

As Michelle had married her man, had kept up appearances, her mother Mrs Lyle thought she should no longer fraternise with my unholy sister, but they kept up with their friendship in spite of her. Mrs Lyle was actually my Godmother and had held me at my own baptism. At that time the family had lived near us though now they had moved to a big house in a flashier part of town. I still saw her sometimes in the street, and she’d sometimes give me a sixpence, but only if someone was around to witness it. I wanted the sixpences, but it was always a case of largesse for the commons. The last time she ever did it I felt truly humiliated. I must have been about 17. I bumped into her as we got to the checkout of the newly opened town centre supermarket. I let her go first, and she swanned ahead of me wafting a vague smell of mothballs. When she had her purse open to pay, she stopped a moment before turning to me. She held up a bright silver sixpence (by then it was 2-1/2 pence in new money) between her thumb and forefinger high enough for all to see, and said “Here, this is for you.” It looked as if I was being tipped for standing back to let her go through.

It was one of the evenings babysitting for Michelle and Matt that made a huge change to my life. Matt’s brother was visiting them, and it had been arranged for Janey to go out for a meal with the three of them. She had met him before, briefly, but I hadn’t so I was rather nervous. I always hated meeting new people. When we arrived I found Jim to look like no-one I’d ever seen before. Both he and Matt had pleasant, open faces and demeanour, but whereas Matt was dark and handsome, Jim had the brightest orange hair and pinkest, craggy face I’d ever seen. There were many red-heads in my school, but none looked like this at all. Jim’s hair was fine, wavy, and shiny, looking like coppery-gold silk.

He gave a broad smile when we were introduced. They all chatted a bit while they put their jackets on. Michelle told me I could have anything I liked from the fridge. There never was anything, but I hoped they might have bought something nice since this person was visiting. But no, the contents were as bleak as usual. I watched some television, and when Leon woke up crying, I told him stories until he drifted off again. I had to make these up as I went along, as I only ever saw one book there, and that was an ABC thing made of cotton cloth. The alphabet must have been something Michelle was keen on, because she had spent a long time one day in the garden when I was small, teaching me to recite it.

So that was it. They came back at around 11, and we stayed long enough to have coffee with milk that was just about on the turn, before my sister said we’d better go home. I could not have imagined that someone so important to me had just entered my world.

Jim and Janey hit it off well, he was good with Kris (now a young boy), and they went out for days together. Jim decided to look for a job in the town, as his recent divorce meant he had nothing to return down south for. He was offered one as a mechanic at a local garage, where they constantly made fun of his strange Kentish accent, mimicking him. No-one had ever heard the like before, and it sounded very ‘posh’ to Northumbrian ears. His brother Matt, somehow, didn’t seem to have it. Jim pronounced the L in almonds. I thought that was extremely strange.

Soon he had moved into my brother Mikey’s attic room, and furnished it with his few belongings. He’d brought a battered old guitar, and a lamp with a base which was really a flat green Mateus Rosé wine bottle. That seemed such a modern, trendy thing to do. Oddly sophisticated.

After a while, Mikey and his wife wanted to move to a house and start a family, which meant it would help matters if Jim found somewhere else to stay. It was long before the days when an unmarried couple might expect or even hope to sleep together in their parent’s houses, so one day Mum came to my room to speak to me. Did I feel it was possible for me to share my room with him? My heart sank. For the first time in my life I’d almost had a room of my own. I say almost, because young Kris by then had been put in with me. But that was easier than sharing it with three older brothers, which had been the norm for most of my life so far. Jim urgently needed somewhere though, and I had to admit he’d always been friendly and pleasant towards me. I had all my things in a large old two-drawer chest with broken handles, so it pleased my mother when I said I’d somehow empty the top one for him to use. She gave me a little hug.

Although Jim tried hard to fit in with things, I soon discovered what I’d find most difficult in sharing the space with him. One day he asked if he could borrow the old watch that he’d seen in my drawer. I was taken aback. In my family each of us had had a drawer or cupboard which was considered out of bounds to everyone else. In the crowded space, it was our little way of having our own tiny bit of privacy. You could have kept a diary in the knowledge that no-one else would leaf through it. It was a shock to me that he knew what was there, and still more, something that was only found by delving deep. I complained bitterly to my mother. I felt betrayed. But she just explained that not everyone had the upbringing we had, and that perhaps in his family personal belongings were not thought of in the same way. She stressed how much Jim liked me and would be upset that he had upset me.

She went on to say that Jim had talked to her about me, and that he had asked for advice. “I don’t seem to be able to get through to him” he’d said.

I thought about that a great deal. I wasn’t sure what he meant. I felt I’d gone a long way towards friendship with him. School life had recently taken a turn for the better when Peter had helped me to accept friendship and both physical and emotional contact more than I ever had before. Jim was certainly warm, friendly and affectionate towards me, and because of Peter’s influence I had never knowingly rejected Jim’s friendliness.

Sometimes when I’d been sat at the dining table with my paints spread out, or was cutting paper and fabrics to make collages, he’d take an interest and ask if he could join me to do some too, and I always agreed. He was a surprisingly good painter, I discovered, and his large mechanic’s hands quite dexterous when making models. It seemed to please him that I liked each of his paintings, so I could not see why he felt he couldn’t ‘get through’ to me. I resolved to be less distant if I could.

I’d read some instructions on how to achieve the colourful abstract-patterned effects that you see inside the covers of very old books. It involved dribbling thinned oil paint into a tray of water, swirling it around and laying the paper onto the surface. It sounded like fun so I set everything up on the dining room table, then went to find him to ask if he wanted to do it with me. “Yes!” He did. It must have been the first time I’d asked him. Before that it seems he’d always felt like someone asking if he could join in. At any rate, it was different that day. Instead of sitting across from each other, concentrating on our own work, we did it all together, pouring the oil in, taking turns to swirl and dip. We laughed when we made a mess of it, and in the end stood back together to view the whole lot of pages spread out drying on the floor. He seemed really pleased, and from that point he never asked to join in again. He just did. I liked having someone to share my paints with. I liked that painting was no longer a solitary experience.

There had to be a little setback in our relationship, of course, and when Christmas grew near I one day came home from school to find a large tree covered in multi-coloured baubles and lights set up in the living room. I had always played a big part in decorating the tree. Our tatty old stuff had a lot of meaning for me, as each time we got the box out they seemed like old friends. A constant in my life. There was a bird that clipped on with a crocodile grip. There was one antique glass one of an old man’s gaunt face. The colours had faded with age, and my mother said it was Santa, and Victorian or Edwardian so that was why he looked so unlike the Santas you saw everywhere today. I loved him. I felt he was the real Santa.

I felt robbed of my place in Christmas. Looking at Jim though, it was obvious it was meant to be a wonderful surprise. We’d never had lights on our tree before. We couldn't afford them. My mother looked a little anxious. I later learned that he’d used his day off to organise it, and been really looking forward to us getting home to see it all look so amazing. But she’d known I liked it to be a family thing –she just hadn’t had the heart to tell him. I stood there looking at it, until he asked me if I liked it. “It’s beautiful” I said. “Really lovely”. He smiled at me.

My mother smiled too, when we were alone. “I’ve just realised something today” she said. “You’ve grown up without me noticing”.

Odd things can permanently cement a friendship, and for Jim and me it happened like this...

I had gone down into town in the hope of finding some cheap wrapping paper. There seemed to be no such thing in our small rural town. None, at least, that I could afford. I happened to bump into my Godmother, Mrs Lyle, and for a moment wondered if there was any chance of receiving a sixpence. That was just what I needed to buy the wrapping paper. This time though, all she wanted to do was critically compare Jim with his brother Matt, who was her son-in-law. “Matt is so much better looking!” she said. She went on to say that Jim’s colouring was outlandish, and asked “Don’t you agree?” My eyes smarted a bit, thinking of his warm, smiling face.  She started to question me, rather unsubtly digging for information about the sleeping arrangements in our house, hoping I suppose to find some sin.

When I stomped home in an emotional mixture of fury and disgust, I told my mother what had happened. “Awful woman.” She said, and confided in me that some time before Mrs Lyle had come to the door and said she wanted to apologise. “Whatever for?” Mum had said. Mrs Lyle said she had been gossiping and saying awful untrue things about her and when she’d told the priest in confession, expecting absolution, he’d told her that to be truly forgiven by God she’d have to get the forgiveness of the person she’d maligned. Apparently, it had all started when Mum sat in Mrs Lyle’s favourite pew in church one day, and Mrs Lyle took it as being on purpose.

Mrs Lyles questioning me, it seemed, was in the hope of discovering something concrete to gossip about.

Mum advised me not to say anything to Jim about being compared so unfavourably with his brother. He might be hurt, even if it was only the opinion of that stupid woman. No need to pull him down when he was full of festive cheer. I was still smarting over it though, when I looked over at his face over tea. Trust me to have an evil godmother, I thought. I toyed with the idea of telling her that if she must wear a wig, she was too old to wear one that was chestnut brown.

Several family members were coming home for Christmas. Looking back, Jim was probably a little nervous about meeting the older brothers. They were quite interested to see him, and to see how he got on with everybody. There was a logistical problem though. The sleeping arrangements. In such a small house with such a variety of people and relationships to accommodate over the holiday, my mother was wracking her brains to organise everybody successfully. There was still no chance of Jim going in with Janey, but there was a solution –that is if Jim and I were willing to share the sofa bed in the living room. Jim said it was fine by him, if it was by me. The idea had me panicking but Jim seemed to just accept it.

So it was, that late on Christmas Eve, we laid out all the Christmas presents just in case young Kris woke very early and came down to see what Santa had left him. We knew that would be the end of sleep for the night. Then we turned our attention to the sofa. It was a huge 1930s art-deco leather thing, and incidentally the same sofa I’d sat on, in misery being interrogated by Aunt Lisa about my playing the wag all those years before. Hidden deep inside lay a folded spring bed and mattress. Who knows when it had last seen use? We had to tug at it until its rusty wires gave way and it expanded into the room with loud clacks, creaks and groans, which made us laugh. As if the situation wasn’t odd enough! We spread sheets and blankets over the dusty mattress, turned off the light, then by the flickering light of the fire put on pyjamas before getting in from either side. It felt strange, unsafe, as if it might refold itself into the sofa and take us in with it. We looked at each other and laughed nervously.

I’d hardly ever in my life, looked so closely and unblinkingly into anyone’s eyes, but Jim made me feel I had some sort of connection with him, and that we were in this unusual situation together. I no longer felt I had to avoid eye contact, with this person at least. After a few whispered jokey comments, we each turned over and tried to sleep.

Only a few minutes had gone by when the door opened, the light clicked on and in walked my Dad, eyes sparkling with having been out for some Christmas Eve cheer with some of his old army pals. Jim and I both sat bolt upright which must have looked funny because Dad chuckled in his unique way before going through to the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea (which he liked very strong and with a large splash of rich evaporated milk). We could see he’d had more than a few drinks, as he sat down in a corner chair, and told us about his evening. That led on to war-time reminiscences brought back to mind by his conversations down at the pub. For about an hour he chatted away, oblivious to the fact that we had been trying to get to sleep. He told us funny stories of Egypt, China and even his time in German camps where he’d given all the guards irreverent and unflattering names. His way of coping, in a way, -of not giving in to being just a number -as if to prove that while he hung on to even a grain of a sense of humour, it meant he kept a grain of humanity.

We sat there like The Odd Couple, being entertained by our own personal comedian. Dad loved having this little chance to share these things that were important to him. We laughed a lot and listened to him, asking him to explain anything we didn't understand and I’m so glad we did. This was to be Dad’s last Christmas, and the last particularly special memory I have of him. He died of a heart attack just a little over two months later. At last the unused-to alcohol took effect, and he became sleepy so made his way up to bed. Jim put some more logs on the fire so it would stay lit until time to get up. It crackled and smouldered, sparked and flickered and as I lay there I thought about Jim, and Peter at school, and how my life had seemed so much better since they had pushed their way into it.

Sharing the monstrous sofa bed must have struck a chord with Jim too, as many times over the years ahead he would mention it at Christmas Eve family get-togethers. And he always spoke of it with humour and affection. Our friendship has been a lasting one, and some time ago I realised it meant as much to him as to me, when I arrived at the house on the morning of one of his son’s weddings. There were a whole bunch of strange people there, relatives of the bride. I was a little cowed by suddenly being faced with them but Jim introduced me. “This is Andy, my brother-in-law” he said. “And my best Friend”.


Monday, 2 December 2013

A Close Encounter of the Strange Kind

Please be aware that this post contains strong language!


A Close Encounter of the Strange Kind


It was the summer of 1977. A long hot summer though not quite as stifling as the drought of the year before. The whole country was gearing up for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. There was little talk of anything else on television -and in the town. I had been out of work for some time and it would be three months before I returned to college. Jobs were very thin on the ground but the man at the labour exchange pointed to a card on the nearly empty rack. It was for a porter at the nearest large hotel. Working with the public was my idea of a nightmare, so I really wasn’t keen. The man was insistent. If I didn’t take it he would stop my benefit anyway. He picked up the phone and called the hotel.


“Yes, this one looks presentable enough” he said after some questioning from whoever was at the other end.


He put the phone down and told me I was to go along to the hotel straight away.

The three-hundred year old coaching inn was the poshest and best known in the area. It stood proudly on the main street, quite an attractive, formal stone building. At least it was at the front. I was to discover that through the arch at side, where the carriages used to go through to the livery stables there was now a large car park and a new wing of about 40 bedrooms, all identical. The bedrooms in the old part had much more character with exposed beams, gabled corners and sometimes round windows. The manager looked me up and down when I entered through the revolving main door into the foyer.


“Right” he said. “You start tomorrow. Afternoon shift. Two till ten.” Looking down at my feet, he frowned at my comfortable, shabby old trainers. “You can’t wear those” he said.

I had never been in the building before but my mother had worked in the kitchens, washing dishes when I was very young. When she left at ten or eleven at night she’d look to see if there were any uneaten sandwiches left over from functions, and if there were, she’d wake us up to share them when she got home.


At home I nervously tried on my one pair of proper shoes. I hadn’t worn them for ages as they were now too small. They were brown leather, with very high platform soles. They were at least two sizes too small by this time but I had no others and no money to buy any.

And the wage was terrible. My take home pay was £19.18p per week. To put that into perspective my brother-in-law working at the creamery earned £60, more than three times as much. I was told I could keep any tips but these normally didn’t even reach £2 a week. The guests had to pay a service charge, which the staff never saw a single penny of but it did put the guests off tipping as they rightly felt they’d already paid to be looked after.


As it was a mile from home to the hotel the tightness of these shoes was going to be a strain before I even started, then eight full hours on my feet at work before a mile hobbling home. More than that, several days a week I had split shifts, which meant two return journeys. During my time there my feet became a real mess, so much so that I didn’t dare look at them. But typically of me, when my wage packets started to come in (you had to work a fortnight before you got anything at all) I put a down-payment on a small black-and-white portable television instead of new shoes, after I’d handed over my keep.


I reported on time for my first shift. My first task was to take a large folding ladder round to the front and clean all the ground floor windows. The list of my duties astonished me. I seemed to have to work in all departments, do a bit of everybody’s jobs ranging from cleaning, serving drinks and bar meals, going on errands, washing dishes, and of course –carrying everyone’s luggage. One day the manager even had me design and make 50 gatefold cards advertising the house wines, to put on the tables in the restaurant. Each one had to have a glass of red wine carefully drawn and coloured in with felt pens. I did them with a slightly jazzy 1950s air, and it was the one time he ever praised anything I did.


I did not like the manager from the start. I found him creepy. There’s a certain kind of mouth I always associate with him now, and I admit to my shame that it puts me off someone if they have one. Whenever his wife was away he’d host porn-watching parties. I’m not prudish at all, and as an artist I see nudity as one of life’s precious gifts. But seeing all these spookily similar, grey, unlovely-looking men furtively softly tapping at the door and gaining entrance to the apartment on the top floor certainly had an air of unpleasantness. Two of these men at least, I later learned, tried to order themselves a Tai-bride. In one case it fell through (lucky girl), but for one it did happen.


The manager’s wife was German, and this once caused me to be heavily censured in the town. She hosted the wedding for one of her friends or relatives and I was handed a huge German flag to unfurl on the long pole that stuck out from the front of the building. It all had to be done from an upstairs window and I was seen by many of the town’s older men who were scandalised. For them, it was too soon after their WWII experiences. They took a huge German flag flapping and waving in the centre of the town as an affront. As I’d been seen to be the one to put it there I received all the complaints. The woman herself was always dolled up with carefully quaffed hair, not unlike Sybil Faulty. She took little interest in the hotel and in the eleven weeks I worked there she never spoke to me. She walked past me in a queenly fashion, leaving behind a thick smell of too much perfume.


All the wedding receptions were a trial. There were too many people and I felt on show. At every one there was some very young kid who was allowed to drink, and far too much, so every time someone would track me down to tell me that the kid had been sick. The main cleaner of the place was a woman and she had complained that she hated going into the gents, found it unnerving so I had been given all the gents toilets to keep clean. But at least with my mop and buckets of hot disinfected water I could spend twenty minutes out of the melee going on in the function room and corridors. I really did hate everything about dealing with the guests.


As members of staff we were generally treated like minions, both by the management and the guests. When I had to serve coffees in the lounge after dinner, I had to get used to having all kinds of personal comments directed at me. Most often about my eyelashes which were unusually long and black, ill-matched with my fair-to-mousy fine hair. Groups of portly businessmen would snort and chortle when one would pointedly ask me with a smirk if I had bought them at Boots, or if I was wearing mascara. But I had it mild. One waitress who was exceptionally pretty was constantly being propositioned. Money was even mentioned. She’d smile and pretend she didn’t understand, but in the kitchen she’d drop the man’s steak on the greasy floor, put it back on his plate and take it out to him.


We regularly had bus trips staying over for a single night. Some of these had fifty or more demanding old age pensioners, and the bus drivers would be visibly frazzled. "I've got a right bunch on this time" one said to me. I’d find out what he meant when I took the cases up. I sometimes had over a hundred cases all to be delivered to the right rooms. The place was a maze of corridors and stairways so even at a running pace and a heavy sweat on it would take me three quarters of an hour to do the job. The last half would be really irate and snotty with me at every room, about the wait they’d had when they wanted to get ready to go down to dinner. I wanted to say “Look at me! Do I have more than one pair of hands and legs?” But of course I didn’t. I was still vainly hoping to collect a few tips. There were very few though, from anyone on these trips.


Two evenings a week, the young woman who did the dishes would be off, so I was given her job to do then. It was my favourite job in the whole place, because it took me away from the guests. Although members of staff were coming through all the time, they were used to me and my silent ways by now. One, Jonno, I had often seen around town, and sometimes at the swimming pool where he ducked and dived like he was made for the water. He was slightly younger than me, and from a different part of town, so I never expected to actually spend any time with him. Here we were thrown together, as he was the kitchen porter. He was very short, less than 5 ft., and everything about him seemed stunted. He had the roundest head I ever saw, and his stubby fingers I’d noticed were half the length of mine and looked like thumbs. We occasionally passed the time of day, briefly and shyly. We had nothing in common but I liked him a lot.


The kitchens were a shock to me when I first saw them. The hotel had such a high class reputation and out front the decor was certainly designed to impress. To me that was all a façade. I felt the kitchens were appalling. Stained cardboard boxes were laid flat all over the floor to soak up the grease. When there was an ‘inspection’ (which happened once while I was there) the manager was given two days advance notice so we were all set to work scrubbing the walls, floors and surfaces like mad.


When the young woman was set to teaching me how to use the dishwashing machine, I couldn’t believe it when some large cooking trays came through with bits of fish still clinging to them. “They’ll do” she said when I showed her. I couldn’t bear the idea of new meals being cooked in them so when I did the job I’d put them through three or four times, and if there were still stubborn traces I’d set to work scrubbing them by hand.


In the corner were huge bins. One for general rubbish and two for food scraped from the dirty plates that came back from the restaurant. These were the pig bins which were collected by a farmer every few days, but not before they overflowed and really stank in the summer heat. What drove me mad was that no-one but me was careful about what went in there. I was always fishing broken schooner glasses out of them that should have gone in the regular bin. I worried myself silly about the pigs crunching on broken glass and cutting their mouths. All my complaints were ignored.


The night porter, a thick-set man of about 60 would sometimes come through just as I was about to leave at ten pm. It was still a sweltering temperature outside and even worse in the kitchens. He’d been drinking, I could smell, and his red face dripped with sweat. He’d go over to the dish towels and mop his face with them -then put them back on the hook! I’d pointedly snatch them off again. Each time, he would belch and say “You’re a little prick” before moving off to find a quiet room to snooze in.


The day of the Silver Jubilee arrived and I will never forget it. The town was expected to be heaving so almost everyone working at the hotel was expected to work that day. For me it seemed like the whole country had the day off except us. And I was on a split shift, to boot. I had to be there from ten till one, and then hobble home to start again at five –for a five hour shift at the dishwasher, serving coffees and also making Melba toast whenever there was a free moment.


When I reached home at twenty past one I found I was alone for a change so I put soapy water into a large plastic bowl and gently lowered my feet in. It was bliss. After only a few moments there was a knock at the front door. Four middle-aged strangers stood there, two men and two women. They introduced themselves as Australian relatives, one my mother’s cousin Betty who she hadn’t seen since they were children. They’d hoped to surprise her. She and her new husband Harry had gone out for a little drive into the countryside. I didn’t know when they’d be back, but felt I had to invite these people in and entertain them. My chances of putting my feet back in the water were gone.


In fact, they entertained me in a way, telling me all about life in Sydney. One of the men, who had the flat, broken-nosed look of a boxer, told me that he’d once knelt on a needle and that it had gone all the way in. Many years later, having travelled round his body it came out through the skin at the tip of his nose.


My mother came back and acted wonderfully surprised when I knew she was really more shocked, and worried about how it would affect making Harry’s tea, which he demanded be on the table at six o’clock and not a minute late.


The Australians asked if they could take our photo, so we went outside for the job. I was recently sent that photograph, which was found among Betty’s things when she died. Our names are neatly written on the back.

 Returning for my evening shift, I was relieved that I would be mostly washing dishes, in spite of the relentless heat. At one point I had to make and serve coffee to all the people who had ordered it in the lounge. There were something like 20 people, sitting in the deep armchairs and sofas. I had just gone back to the dishwasher when the manager came in furious with me. I had served stone cold coffee to them all! I couldn’t understand it. I’d just made the stuff. On closer inspection I discovered that the machine was switched off at the wall, but the water from the cold tap that I’d poured into the machine had dribbled down through the filter and coffee grounds as usual. How could I not have noticed that it had stayed as cold as it came out of the tap? I had another dressing down in front of the waitresses and guests. Later, one of the waitresses admitted to me that she’d accidentally switched it off, thinking she was switching off the hotplate next to it which was no longer needed. She apologised for getting me into trouble but didn’t want to admit it to the manager.


Hot and bothered, I needed to escape for a minute’s fresh air so I went out the back kitchen door. All the smokers regularly sneaked out there for a quick drag. The ground was littered with tab ends. I knew it would be, because once a week it was my job to sweep them all up. The manager was straight out after me and started to have another go. Just at that moment a man was walking past. He looked at me, saw my hassled face, and then turned to the manager who was in mid flow.


“Hey!” the man shouted. “Don’t talk to him like that!”


The manager stopped short, huffed and puffed a bit, and then ordered me to get back to work. We both went back inside.


Towards the end of my shift I had to take some empty bottles to the bottle store. This was a large padlocked, walk-in cage situated in one of the huge, barn-like sheds. Also in the same shed was a cage containing the calico hampers of dirty laundry that I had brought down during my morning shift. It was growing dark in there so as I was unlocking the door to the bottle store, I was alarmed to hear a strange shuffling noise from the other side of the shed. The far wall had hefty shelves the size of bunk beds stacked with all kinds of junk. Under the bottom shelf rolls of old carpet were stored and it was here that I saw movement. A figure crawled out and stood up. It was the man who had earlier spoken harshly to the manager.


“You won’t tell anyone, will you? I’ve got nowhere else to sleep” he said.


I shook my head. It was the least I could do for a homeless person who had stuck up for me.


Thinking about it later, he looked a bit odd for a homeless person. There was no tatty bag of meagre possessions, all he had were the clothes he stood in, and they were not many. Well-polished black shoes, socks, charcoal grey trousers and a slim fitting bluish grey jumper. All very clean. In his early to mid-thirties, he was good looking, handsome even, clean-shaven with dark eyes and (to me) unfashionably short dark hair that stood thickly straight and to attention all over the top of his head.


“I’m hungry” he said. “Any chance you could get me some food?”


He looked vulnerable, somehow. I said I would try.


“Are you a Geordie?” he asked. “I’m a Jock.”


He needn’t have bothered telling me that. His accent was so strong every syllable proclaimed his identity. He told me he was trying to make his way to... Aberdeen or Dundee. As I’d heard of both but neither meant anything to me I didn’t know the difference. They sounded similar to my ears so I don’t remember. Both far off places. I just know it was one or the other.


It was nearly time for me to leave work, but I went into the kitchen and hastily put a few leftover things into an empty bread packet which I stuffed into the large patch pocket of my awful work jacket. I wanted to take him a cup of the coffee that I'd just freshly made but would have just been tipped down the sink when the machine was switched off, but I was too nervous about being seen carrying it across the car park.


He really was hungry and quickly started on the dry sandwiches and cake. I apologised it was all I could get. I told him I had to get home, and said goodbye.


The next morning when I took down the heavy hampers of dirty linen, I nervously looked round the shed, wondering if he’d still be under the shelf, hidden among the rolled up carpets. He wasn’t. But he was when I later had to take the bottles in again. I sneaked him out some more food, only this time I could only manage some bread and butter. There were too many people around. As he ate, he told me more about himself. He’d been a soldier, he said, and served in Aden. He’d been wounded, and pulled the neck of his jumper across to reveal the scar on his shoulder. He invited me to pull the neck down lower at the back, to get a better look at how big the scar was. I didn’t want to see his scars at all, but he seemed quite proud of them. He had them on his stomach as well and asked if I wanted to see them too.


“No, that’s alright, thanks” I said. “I believe you”.


He said it was a shitty place to sleep, under the shelf. He wondered if it was possible I could put him up for the night. I apologised, but explained I had to share my room with three older brothers. That was not strictly true. In fact not true at all. It had been true, but by now they had all left home. It was all I could think of on the spur of the moment. Besides, the household was now ruled by Harry, the man who had recently married my mother. It was a difficult situation there at the best of times. He’d made up all kinds of rules that he expected my mother to enforce. Such as we were only allowed three inches of water in the bath. It had caused quite a bit of ill-feeling between her and me. Gone were the days when a relaxed atmosphere reigned there.


Once a fortnight I had a long walk out of town to the inconveniently situated council offices to pay the rent. I clearly remember the day when I noticed the rent book I was carrying seemed different. On closer inspection I discovered that my mother’s name was no longer on it. The house I’d grown up in and my parents had paid the rent on for so many years was now registered in the name of this stranger, this tyrant of a man. I realised that our old life, and even our home, were gone forever.


The idea of taking the Jock back to stay the night was, of course, impossible, though I almost considered trying it, as I felt he was someone who might sort out the tyrant for me.

Instead, I emptied out my pockets. It had been a fairly good week for tips and I thought there might be enough to pay his bus fair to Edinburgh at least. He thanked me, said I was a good bloke and pocketed all the loose change.


I expected him to be gone the next day, but he was still there. I couldn’t get any food, but had a mars bar so I gave him that. As he ate, he looked at me and frowned. “Don’t stand like that” he said. “I hate to see you with your hands in your pockets. Stand up straight!” I was so surprised I did as I was told.


“He’s always checking up on you all, that manager. He comes outside all the time trying to catch you skiving. He looks like a bastard to work for.” He’d obviously watched everybody from the dark recess under his shelf.


“I hate it here. I don’t fit in and the manager’s horrible.” I said. “I get on well with some of the women though”.


His expression changed instantly. “Women! I hate the fucking cunts!” he said, with so much vehemence I was shocked. “I’d marry you first”. Seeing the look on my face, he followed it up with “You don’t believe me do you? I’d make love to you. I wish I had my old flat, and you could look after me, and I’d make love to you all night.”


He moved toward me, and tried to kiss me. I turned and stumbled out of the shed. Red faced, I went to clock out. A fellow worker who was also leaving noticed my flushed face and commented on all this damned heat.


The next day I didn’t want to go into the shed, and was glad when I did to find he was gone. I never saw him again and that would have been that. I wondered if I should tell someone but who? And besides, I knew I’d have everyone say I was stupid for helping him in the first place. I always seemed to do things the wrong way.


But when my mother’s husband was reading the local paper a few days later, he said “I see another one just walked off out of the prison again.” There was an open prison about twelve miles out of the town and there was much concern about how easy it seemed to be to escape. “It wasn’t a Jock was it?” I asked. He and my mother both looked at me, quizzically.


“It doesn’t say” he said.


I quickly changed the subject. It was not something I felt I could talk about. Until now



Tuesday, 19 June 2012

A Chance Encounter

It was the early to mid 1970s. Peter and I, in our last year at school were sitting in the tiny galley-style library reading up for our English literature exams when one of the nuns called us aside and asked us if we’d like to go to a science lecture at Newcastle University the next evening.

Science was a pretty unknown subject for us, as I’ve said before. None of us dopes were expected to go into that field.  So it sounded rather boring, but this nun obviously wanted to go and she was quite unlike the other nuns.  Friendly and chatty, with a sense of humour she was quite young, (soon to be taking her final vows) very tall and statuesque.  She had three tickets, she said, and would drive us there in the convent mini.

Peter being tall, he sat in the front where there was slightly more leg room. I squeezed into the back when he tipped his seat forward for me. I preferred being in the back anyway as it made me feel less noticeable. Peter and the nun chatted comfortably and I mostly looked out the window but after a while the nun gave us a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate each to eat on the way. It made it feel like an outing.

The lecture turned out to be interesting, with demonstrations of the effects on such things as chrysanthemum flowers when dipped into liquid nitrogen. They shattered like glass when hit on the bench.

Afterwards, she suggested showing us the teacher training college she’d not long since left. There was a friend there she’d like to see and she thought it might interest us. Once there, she showed us round the art department (for me) and the PE department (for Peter). I loved the painting and textile rooms and wondered what it would be like to use a proper sized loom. They looked so complicated, but the results made by the students were incredible.

It was a Roman Catholic college attached to a convent, so there were Irish accents everywhere, and quite a large contingent of nuns. The friend she wanted to see was also a nun, so we made our way through long quiet corridors with rows and rows of plain wood doors. Every so often a door would be open and we’d glimpse a cosy bedroom complete with stripy curtains and washbasin. Towards the end of the last corridor we stopped and our nun tapped on a particular door.

We were welcomed in and Peter and I sat on the bed while the two nuns chatted and made cups of coffee for us. Mine was so hot I didn’t know how I could drink it and as often happens with me when I see everyone else’s drink going down and knowing they’ll all have to wait for me, I started to get one of my anxiety attacks.

Outside in the corridor there came a distraction though, much to my relief. A strong male Irish accent could be heard, animatedly and confidently telling an amusing story to some nun who was laughing. The nun we’d come to see said “Oh, there’s Liam.” She went to her door and called him in, saying there were people she wanted him to meet. “Sure I’ll be there in just a minute.” He said.

When he arrived he leant against the door frame filling the space and folded his arms. He was tall and handsome in a strange way I’d never seen before. He smiled and nodded to me when we were introduced. He asked us which subjects we were interested in. When I said art, he asked me if I was good, which flustered me but Peter jumped in and said “Yes, he’s good” I was struck by his easy-going banter with us and with the nuns, and the confident tone and level of his voice which seemed to fill the whole quiet wing of the building. At any rate, he was someone I could not forget, and it was a great surprise to me years later, and well after I’d done some time at that college myself that I was watching television one night to see someone I felt I recognised in a film. “That looks very like that Liam I met at the college with Peter.” I thought.

As I’d been to the college myself I was able to check the names of past students and to my amazement I was right. It was the Liam I had met. Liam Neeson. Before he was famous.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

A kind of crush

In 1972, when I had just turned seventeen, I met a teacher who would have a lasting effect on me. Even today things he said then make me look at everything in a certain way, and affect what I do.

I had grown up in such a repressed school environment that it could be seen even in my drawings. I might have mentoned before that a teacher (a nun) said she liked one of my charcoal drawings, a landscape with bush and trees. When I said it was based on a painting by Van Gogh that I'd seen in a library book she took it from my hands and ripped it up, snarling that he was a disgusting man.

After leaving school I enrolled on a course that included wonderful subjects for me. Painting and print-making, and Art history from 1840 to the present day. Both were taught by a very handsome, trendy, bearded, well dressed man in his mid twenties, with tousled long dark hair and a deep voice. At the conclusion of my interview, where he'd sat and chatted with me for almost three hours over my folder of work (mainly pictures of saints), I turned at the door and said "Bye". He'd said "See ya" and I kicked myself for not being cool enough to say see ya. Why did I have to say "Bye", like a right ninny.

On the course it soon became clear that all the girls fancied him like mad. They called him "The Dish". Occasionally we had glimpses of his private life, and saw he went out with a succession of stunningly beautiful women. I admired him such a lot too, and wanted to be confident like him and not this gawky, socially awkward thing that I was. Looking back I think it was a sort of crush for me too, except that for me it was about how amazingly great he was at opening us up to new ideas, new horizons. He introduced me to the work of the Impressionists, Pre-Raphaelites, Van Gogh (without the scorn) and so many other artists I'd never had the chance to study. He took us in a mini-van to see galleries and lectures, and walking through the streets of Newcastle taught us to always look up, where above the modern shop fronts we'd find all kinds of stunning architecture we'd never noticed.

At the end of each painting or drawing session he had us all line our work up against one wall and would talk about each piece in turn. His comments live with me still, even the negative ones were totally constructive, always helping me to try new things. He was a very brilliant teacher.

When he needed someone to stay behind to help with some runs of screenprinted posters that the college were doing for local festivals, I was over the moon that he asked me. I just liked being with him, learning about screen prints and mixing inks, registering the paper correctly on the machine etc., and most of all talking about art with the first person I'd met who really seemed to be as interested as I was.

After doing so many evenings, he stopped me as I was leaving and gave me a pound note for my efforts. I had so little money that I only had one pair of socks that I had to rinse out each night. And a pound went a lot further then than now. But I so badly didn't want to spend it. I really did think the world of him, and treasured the note more than what I could buy with it. Was that a crush, or what?!

Of course in the end I did have to spend it, but even now I wish I hadn't had to. I was so saddened about having to move on to the next college I didn't go in on the last day because I couldn't face saying goodbye. I've never been good about goodbyes.

And the teacher? I met him again about five years later and we went for a drink. It was the beginning of a long friendship.

That teacher was at what would now be called a sixth form college, or something like that. He got me through my 'O' and 'A' levels and really prepared me for the art college I went to after that.

It must be said though that at the art college a lot of the teachers were RUBBISH. Not interested at all, and it was a time when anything that was not Abstract Art was frowned upon which was difficult for me. Most of the day I'd do my own thing (You could do that because the teachers were nowhere to be seen and only turned up at the end of the day). Then in the last half hour I'd do a few coloured scribbles with pastels on maybe five or six sheets of paper and that is what I'd show them. They'd ask me to talk about what I'd done so I'd say things like "I explored the spatial relationships between these lines and also how they related in colour terms". And they'd say "Yes, I can see that. You are really getting to grips with this now". I thought it was hilarious.

I don't dislike Abstract art. Most of my paintings begin with an abstract sketch. By that I mean I do a small thumbnail sketch of only the main shapes, no detail, to see if they make a pleasing arrangement. So I did get something out of the pressure to paint abstractly. I've just always felt that too much was read into things and that to be forced to paint in a certain way is wrong.

Art college opened up another new world for me though. Life drawing with nude models. That was a bit of a shock to begin with. And that too changed my way of looking at the world -and the people in it!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Grandma (part one)


I’m often a little envious as I watch programmes like Flog It. Apparently the world is filled with kind and loving grandparents. So often, when the question is asked “And what will you do with the money?” the reply is “Oh, something for the grandchildren.”

I have no experience of such benign beings, willing to shower us with unexpected windfalls. My paternal grandmother, who I’m told was a lovely woman who made the best rice pudding anyone had ever tasted, died during the war.

I did know my maternal grandmother though, and have wanted to write about her for a long time. I just didn’t know where to start. She was an odd mixture of people, and it depended very much on who you were as to how she’d treat you.

Sunday afternoons usually went one of three ways. If my dad was not at work (he did shift work by the time I’m writing about here) he’d take us for long walks, as I’ve written about before. My mother then would bake while we were out, or after we’d managed to rent a television she might take advantage of the quiet to watch a Bette Davis film. When the walk was not possible she’d send us down to visit Grandma, who lived a few streets away, or if that was also not possible (mainly because she sometimes went on coach trips) we’d settle down to watch the Sunday afternoon film too. I would drive my mother mad by asking who was in the film before it started. She’d say, perhaps, Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland, and I would keep asking “Is that him?”, “Is that her?” until she would be able to say “Yes!!!! It is!!! Now watch the film!”

How glad she must have been on the rare occasions my mother had to watch a film in peace. “Off you go now, go and visit Grandma.” she’d say. “Ah Mam! Do we have to? She doesn’t want us there.” “She does. She’ll be expecting you”

So the younger ones of us would drag our feet down the hill and do our duty. When we got there, we’d always feel she’d been hoping we wouldn’t turn up. Because we weren’t Peter, Terry or Paul. These were the three grandchildren she favoured. The first two were my cousins, the other was my oldest brother. Half brother to be exact, though none of us looked at it like that. So the three shared something in common. None were fathered by my dad. The difference was constantly being made obvious. For instance the three all had insurances taken out for them, so when they reached 16 they had a sum of cash to help them with whatever they wanted. The other five of us… zilch.

Most of it I could put up with. It was just the way it was. But Grandma would keep saying something that I felt particularly upsetting. One of these times went like this…

We arrived as usual. It was a hot summer day so when Grandma allowed us into her small cluttered sitting room we were instantly hit by one of the sweetest smells we’d ever encountered. There, on the sideboard sat a plate and knife. On the plate lay a large yellow fruit we’d only seen in shops. About a third cut into, it was a wonderfully ripe, highly scented honeydew melon.

“Take your eyes off that!” she said. “You’re not getting any.”

Take your eyes off that. Stung again. I hated it when she said it.

Later, when my kindly, middle-aged bachelor uncle came home he asked us if we‘d ever tasted melon, and realising he might actually be thinking of cutting us a decent slice each Grandma quickly carved off the thinnest shaving possible while he got changed. Worse, my favoured brother Paul arrived, and he was given a really thick chunk which he chomped and slurped into with his usual greedy gusto while we looked on in strange fascination. Well, it was delicious.

My mother loved this woman. At the time, I simply I couldn’t understand why. We’d complain about how unfair she was, but mam would just say “She’s old. You have to make allowances.” My dad certainly made allowances. He might sometimes give a little wry smile behind her back, but to her face he was always pleasant, and in her declining years was really very kind to her. Much more than her treatment of him ever deserved.

To be continued..

The Ones That Got Away

I think We've all done it. Set our heart on some gem of an item in a shop window and then for one reason or another didn't get it only to pine and regret it for years to come.

I remember mine with mixed emotions and want to say "Don't let anyone else put you off!"

It was in the early '70s when I saw something in an antique shop window while waiting for a bus. It was quite a large black metal figure of a cavalier. Probably about 20 or more inches tall and on an ornate base. Actually there were two, the other was a knight in armour, but I was very into paintings by Van Dyke and this looked to me like Prince Rupert. He wore a large floppy hat with an ostrich feather, had great big boots with large turn-downs at the top, and his clothes were covered in lace and dozens of bows. He had a goatee beard.

The detail was superb. Though it was entirely black metal it did give the feeling of different textures, leather, silk, felt, feather etc... I loved it. There was a name on it that read 'Don Juan', but that meant nothing to me at the time. The other said 'Don Quixote'. The price on the tag when I craned my neck to see it was £22. Each. More money than I'd ever owned in my entire life. I started to save and found any odd jobs I could do to make a pound here, 50p there. I kept going back to look at it whenever I could, always dreading the day it would be gone. The shop was always closed and a sign stated that it was only open for a couple of hours twice a week. I was glad because it meant less chance of it being sold.

Finally my birthday arrived and with the money I asked for I had saved £20. I was going to skip college on the next opening time and be brave and offer the 20. I'd never been in an antique shop before and it looked a bit posh but I felt I could be brave enough if it meant the figure could be mine at last. But Oh, why did I mention my plan to my sister-in-law? She was appalled. Her jaw dropped. She said it was disgusting to think I'd use all that hard-earned money to buy one ornament when I so needed new clothes. She had a point. At the time my stuff was pretty threadbare, my art student loons in shreds at the hem from dragging on the ground with each step of my platforms. I only had one pair of socks which I had to rinse out every night and which were sometimes still wet when I put them on again in the morning.

She would be very angry with me, she said, if I did such a thing. "What a waste of money!" So I felt guilty about it and wrestled with myself about doing the right thing. In short, I didn't go. And it was a mistake I'm still smarting over. Both figures vanished from the window before the next opening time. I'd lost it.

I've seen similar figures since but never the same one, and they've always been hundreds of pounds so I think mine would have gone up in value if I'd ever wanted to sell it. And I don't even remember the items I did spend the money on. The moral is, if you really love it, don't let someone else make you feel bad about it and put you off like I did.


This one is about a raffle. On the whole, my family are not raffle winners. We buy the tickets often enough but it just doesn't happen for us. One sister won a one-pound premium bond in about 1960, and I won a book of ten first class stamps about twelve years ago. And that's about it.

Well, also about the time I won the stamps I was visiting a shop that sold Japanese antiques. I loved the place. I'd been there before and bought the red kimono I painted my cat asleep on in the studio one day. (for those that are interested it's a silk nagajuban from about 1930s, an underkimono -not underwear, I just mean worn as the second layer under the top kimono. The pattern on it is tie-dyed in small spots.) I'd also bought the woodblock prints there and the bamboo blind seen in the painting.

Anyway they also sold the long trailing wedding coats (uchikake) which I loved but they were absolutely huge retail prices. Then I noticed that one of the ones I liked most was not for sale. It was donated by the shop to be raffled for a local charity. First prize. It had my name ALL over it, so I went to the counter and bought 20 tickets. Something told me that the powers above had sent me there to see it that day. It was a difficult place to get to as I don't drive so I knew I wouldn't be able to get back to buy more tickets before the draw, which unfortunately was six months away. Of course over the next six months I was constantly thinking about it, even checking off the weeks on the calendar. I'd better give a word of caution here. If you ever think of starting a collection of Japanese textiles please be aware that it becomes an obsession! It takes over your life.

I just knew the kimono should be mine. No-one could treasure it more than I would, I felt sure of that. I really had got it bad. So on the weekend of the raffle I stayed at home so that if/when I won I'd know as soon as possible. Of course no call came. As I said, I'm just not the raffle-winning kind. It was just that I was so sure this time...

So that was it. Or almost. The next time I went to the shop, there it was. For sale. I spoke to the man at the counter who told me that the woman who won it had brought it in. She hadn't wanted it. "What can I do with something like that?" she'd said. He told me he'd suggested she hang it on the wall. She was not impressed and said it just didn't go in her house. Too bright. So could he sell it for her.

Arghhhhhh!!!!! The frustration! I'd have loved it. What the experience did do however was make me resolve to have one on the wall where I work so I could enjoy the colours and design whenever I want. And with help from friends in Japan I got the one shown below, which lights up my room every spring. It's actually made to be worn by a spring bride, and would have been rented for the day. The pattern is willow warblers on branches of prunus blossom above stylised flowing water. it's about 20 years old. And over six feet long, from shoulder to heavily padded hem. Made to trail in an attractive curving sweep....